Kerslake sets out ‘unfinished business’ in civil service reform

There is “unfinished business” in civil service reform, former head of the civil service Sir Bob Kerslake said yesterday – including devolving powers away from Whitehall, and breaking down departmental structures. 

By Matt.Ross

26 Sep 2014

Speaking at the Institute for Government, Kerslake set out a “to do list” with four main elements, and named some of his biggest regrets about his two years in the job.

On the future shape of the civil service, Kerslake said: “My firm view is that we need to move to a much more corporate model, with stronger professional leadership across Whitehall and much greater sharing of services. Put simply, we need to redefine what we mean by a department.” Whitehall’s “ability to deal with cross-cutting issues is still weak,” he added.

The civil service also “needs to go a lot further” in strengthening its capabilities, he said, considering “how we attract develop and retain key skills that are highly marketable; and part of that conversation has to be pay.”

He called for people with operational skills to be as valued as those with policy backgrounds, and pointed to the need for action to “tackle the macho culture that too many women experience, and increase the number of BME staff at senior levels – which has flatlined in recent years. The story on diversity is still too variable across departments – some are brilliant, some are terrible – and there needs to be more consistent performance.”

On devolution, Kerslake – who remains the permanent secretary at the Department for Communities and Local Government until his retirement next year – criticised the “working assumption that Whitehall knows best,” and argued that “the sucking-up of power crowds out the space for ministers and civil servants to focus on the things that only they can do.

Finally, Sir Bob said that the debate on the “future vision for the civil service” needs to “surface”, creating an honest discussion of “the radically different views on what the future civil service should look like. At the moment this debate is happening more by proxy.”

Answering questions after his speech, he made clear that he was referring to the “views abroad” criticising the model of a permanent, impartial civil service, and made clear his “passionate” support for the existing model.

Kerslake named three main regrets. It took too long to produce a new diversity plan, he said, and the reform programme was undermined by two errors. First, enacting “the proposed changes to terms and conditions at the same time as the plan” led to many civil servants viewing the reform plan as a means of “sacking people and making the ones who are in work do more for less” – costing the reforms significant support.

Second, after the “demanding” task of producing the reform plan, the team was “absolutely exhausted, so virtually the whole team was replaced,” he said. “Getting the right team in place lost us time. We also didn’t do enough to identify the tasks and then properly resource the leaders of those tasks at the beginning.”

“Those two mistakes lost us time, so some of the criticism of pace was justified in the first year, and I was as frustrated as ministers”.


For more coverage and analysis of Kerslake’s valedictory speech, see the October issue of Civil Service World

See also: Kerslake: Delay in diversity plan ‘biggest regret’

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